Silver Screen: Captain America: Civil War ****
To quote another citizen of Los Angeles who starred in a different kind of movie everybody saw one summer, one that also caused a significant internal conflict: “Can’t well all just get along?”
This is the summer of superhero fights. Having exhausted nearly every iteration of “Let’s go fight a big thing in the sky that dispatches a lot of smaller things for us also to fight!” Hollywood, like listless children, has taken to banging its toys together.
Marvel has some really fun, shiny toys, though, which makes Captain America: Civil War an endearingly silly royal rumble.
The title calls it a Captain America movie, and Civil War does directly follow from the events of 2014’s Cap sequel Winter Soldier, but this is an ensemble effort closer to the Avengers. Really, it’s just a Marvel movie, introducing new franchise characters and bringing in others from established series.
Civil War marks a kind of departure point for the Marvel movies. The meandering, occasionally incomprehensible Age of Ultron aside, they’ve been reasonably accessible to viewers who haven’t followed every sequel or don’t have long boxes full of funnybooks in their closets at home. As of Civil War, you’re either in or you’re out. There’s just not enough time to reintroduce such a large cast of exotic characters, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wisely don’t try, sparing us all a lot of awkward expository dialogue. When Paul Rudd wanders onto the screen, you either know that’s Ant-Man or you don’t, and if you want to try to keep up that’s your business.
The downside of these increasingly interdependent Marvel movies is that the individual films often feel distractible and incomplete. Any one of the studio’s talented hired-gun directors is often selling two more movies at the same time they’re trying to tell their own story, which leads to mission creep and some strange tangents. (Thor thrashing around in a hallucinogenic hot tub, anyone?)
The upside is that the filmmakers are able to let some plotlines burn slowly while they set up big events featuring a complex web of characters. Civil War is more payoff than setup, uniting existing plotlines while making good— and then some— on its promise of depicting the definitive superhero showdown to date.
The plot— which at this point is more like one installment in a long-running serial— involves Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), also known as the Winter Soldier. Like his old war buddy Captain America (Chris Evans), Bucky was frozen and reanimated as a super soldier, but by nefarious Europeans who brainwashed him into becoming a Hydra assassin.
The world is still reeling from the collateral damage of the events of the Avengers movies. During a global conference about the issue of superheroes and national security, the king of African nation Wakanda is assassinated, presumably by the Winter Soldier. The political pressure is enough to convince guilt-ridden superheroes like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his pals James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to consent to government oversight, while Captain American leads a team of dissenters who believe they’re the only ones qualified to track down the real assassins and bring them to justice.
Marvel’s army of screenwriters and producers do a nice job of keeping both sides sympathetic. They all want the same thing, they just disagree how to go about it. Their motivations are recognizably human. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the indifferent, dickish ideologies espoused in Batman versus Superman, where the Caped Crusader bafflingly declared that if there’s a one percent chance Superman could be a bad guy then he must be killed.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a hell of a job keeping all the plates spinning, balancing not just a party bus’s worth of movie stars, but a lot of delicate shifts in tone. They balance the action and the trademark Marvel humor quite nicely. Most important, they orchestrate the movie’s extravaganza of a centerpiece, the big superhero smackdown set at an abandoned airport. It’s a dazzling display of effects and camerawork, and the bummer vibes of seeing our favorite characters wail on each other is mitigated by the quippy dialogue and their own active regret at the confrontation.
Captain America: Civil War also introduces two new characters— or one-and-a-half, anyway. Following the assassination of his father, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes the king of Wakanda. That’s going to make for some scheduling conflicts as T’Challa moonlights as the Black Panther, an armored avenger who protects the citizens of his own country, and who has a vested interest in this fight. The movie also hastily introduces the new Spider-Man (Tom Hollander), a younger, breezier take on the character.
Black Panther is a cool addition, and this third incarnation of Spider-Man looks like it might be the charm. Holland trading jokes with Paul Rudd during a supersized fistfight is perhaps the movie’s high point, and Boseman’s kickass new character stirs up serious interest in his own solo adventure— which, handily, Marvel has on the schedule for 2018.
We didn’t even mention Oscar winner Jeremy Renner, Oscar nominee William Hurt, frequently Oscar-adjacent actor Paul Bettany, nor Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, or the movie’s defacto villain, Daniel Bruhl. There’s so much going on in Captain America: Civil War that it all barely fits into the movie, much less a thousand-word review. Its abundance is alternately exhausting and thrilling. This increasingly appears to be the new Marvel-movie paradigm. More casual fans could be understandably put off. But if you like this kind of thing, you’ll love this one.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.